A first-grader at Lakeview Primary School quietly studied the options on the lunch line, unsure what he wanted to eat. He decided on the nachos — a scoop of ground chicken with a bag of Doritos, beans, and a bowl of steamed corn and peppers.
At the end of the line, a cafeteria aid asked the student if he wanted to try something from the “Georgia Grown” section. Baldwin County school cafeterias often highlight locally grown produce, and that day students could choose between fresh peaches and nectarines or a salad made from lettuce grown in Dublin.
The boy took a nectarine, plopped it on his tray next to the pouch of tortilla chips, and went on his way.
Featuring locally sourced items on the lunch menu is just one facet of the Baldwin County School District’s farm to school program, an initiative that just earned the district the platinum level Golden Radish Award.
Sponsored by the state’s Department of Education, Department of Agriculture and Department of Public Health, as well as Georgia Organics the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, the award recognizes schools that go above and beyond to incorporate local agriculture into different aspects of school life, from menu offerings to class curriculum to staff trainings.
“In order to win this award, you really have to be focused,” said Susan Nelson, school nutrition director for the district. “And you have to be good at collecting data and analyzing data, looking at what you’ve done and what worked, and you’ll try differently next year.”
Baldwin County schools received the gold level award for its farm to school efforts the past two years, and this year the district met all of the necessary criteria to win the highest tier of recognition.
To win the platinum-level award, schools must integrate farming into the school environment in 10 different ways throughout the year, including offering locally grown items on their breakfast and lunch menus, conducting taste tests, taking students on field trips to nearby farms, hosting hands-on cooking activities and incorporating farm-related topics into their curricula.
“I think often teachers and parents and just the public in general just look at us as a place where you can come get your lunch. But there’s a lot more that goes into that,” Nelson said. “You can really tie it around everything.”
Teaching students about farming helps them better understand where the food they eat comes from, Nelson said.
“It’s just to get them used to understanding that, you know, this carrots we’re having, they don’t grow at Walmart or grow at Kroger. They’re actually in the ground,” she said.
Students spend more time indoors these days, Nelson said, and are often told not to get their hands dirty. But the nutrition director has seen students’ excitement as they pull their own carrots from the ground or taste produce grown at a local farm.
“We’ve been using a lot of hydroponic lettuce that we get from Dublin, Georgia. And the kids just light up when they taste this lettuce that’s grown hydroponically,” she said. “The colors are just so brilliant and bright, and they just eat by the hands full, and they love it. So, our lettuce consumption has dramatically gone up this past year.”
Nelson noted that the program also has allowed the district to address health issues in Baldwin County head-on. The county has the second-highest level of obesity prevalence in Georgia, at a rate of 36.8 percent of adults. The state average, one of the highest in the country, is 31.4 percent.
“In Baldwin County, heart disease is the number one killer,” Nelson said. “So, we talk about that.”
The farm to school program allows teachers to have open conversations with students about health and even incorporate the topic into their lesson plans.
“They tie it back to nutrition, such as a math class may plant a garden and calculate how big the bed’s gonna be and how many seeds they need,” Nelson said. “Some classes do journaling, so it includes some English for them. And of course, there’s always science, learning what makes plants grow, how photosynthesis works.”
She said school staff aren’t required to include food-related themes into their curricula, but many come to her wanting to get more involved in the farm to school program.
“Certain teachers have a passion for wellness and farm and gardening and, you know, I let them come to me,” Nelson said. “They know what resources we have, and if they’re interested, then we can provide it.”
Catering to students’ tastes
School nutrition manager Diane May recently visited a class at Lakeview Primary School and let them taste different types of Georgia-grown peaches.
“They really got into it,” she said.
Students tried four iterations of the fruit: fresh, frozen, dried and canned. Then, they got to score their options and tell May what version of peach they’d most like to see in the cafeteria.
“They ask, ‘OK, how am I going to see this on the line?’” May said. “And some of them remembered seeing the fresh peaches and all on the line.”
May said the Golden Radish program has allowed the district’s nutrition staff to revamp their menus and offer a wider variety of foods to the students they serve.
“It gave us the opportunity take a hard look and expand what we were doing on vegetables, realize that there are other vegetables and fruits out there,” she said.
It’s not always easy to convince students to eat their fruits and veggies, though. May said some students enjoy “old timey vegetables” like collard greens and zipper peas, but they especially love hot dogs.
The key, she said, is to catch one student’s attention with a healthy menu offering. Once one child tries a new food, others are likely to follow suit.
“A lot of times, kids come back and say, ‘I really like that. I want to do that again,’ ” May said. “I mean, we hear it coming through the line. ‘When are you going to do this again?’ ”
Still, getting kids to pick the healthy options is easier said than done. Of the about 550 lunches May serves at Lakeview Primary School each day, only about 300 are hot meals. The other 250 lunches are “super sacks,” or lunch bags filled with five packaged foods that meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture federal nutrition guidelines.
Super sacks serve as an alternative option for students who don’t want to eat the main meal, but they hardly offer the same nutritional value as a home-cooked meal. On nacho day, the super sacks were filled with cherry-flavored yogurt, cheese sticks, baby carrots, apple slices and a bag of chips.
May hopes that with a little creativity and the right seasoning, students were learn to love their vegetables. And if they could grow their own produce, maybe they would be more excited to eat it.
“I’m hoping that we can get our students more involved with the Golden Radish Award and the way the participation is. We have done small plants in the classroom, but as far as being able to establish a whole garden, we haven’t been able to do that yet,” she said. “I’m hoping that they will learn with the Georgia Grown, the different items that we do locally, that it’s something that they themselves can do and be more interested in getting involved in that.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/samantha.max.9 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.